I really enjoy helping the hard working folks from NJ Fish & Wildlife put up wire cages around Piping Plover nests. Mostly because, since I’m not good things like “digging,” or “sweating”, or “working,” I usually wind up with the cushy job: keeping an eye on the nervous adult PIPL while the exclosure is built around their nest.
It actually is kind of an important job because Piping Plover will occasionally abandon a nest because of the disturbance. While it is certainly a risk worth taking in most cases because a Piping Plover nest on places like Long Beach Island is essentially 100% guaranteed to get eaten by Red Fox, still, it’s always prudent to keep an eye on the adults while the exclosure is being erected around the nest and watch for signs of an overly freaked-out PIPL.
Usually things go pretty smoothly. The adults just run a cautious circle around all the activity while peeping loudly and using their primary defense in these precarious situations: the “Broken Wing” defense. They will flop a wing around sloppily in the sand, pretending that it is busted, making a racket, and trying to lure anyone who will look at them away from their nests.
I pretend to fall for it every time to make them feel good. I’m a good babysitter like that.
The experience has all the feels. It is a little sad to watch a Piping Plover in distress, especially as a result of a human disturbance. But, like taking our pets to the vet, you know the task is to just get them through it, even if they don’t understand, and they’ll be better off in the end. It’s rewarding to pretend to fall for the Broken Wing, helping the PIPL to keep itself busy and focused and feeling like it is really smart during the few minutes it takes to erect the exclosure fencing and protect the nest.
But most of all, it is simply fascinating to watch the brave, clever, and beautiful display of nature that the Broken Wing Display truly is.
But every once in a while you get a PIPL who plays by a different set of rules. We already knew that Pete McLain was a special little boy. But nothing could prepare me for the “intense” approach Pete would take to defending his eggs. While he kind of does the Broken Wing, or something really loosely inspired by it, what he essentially does is a violent and chaotic dance to lure you away quickly so he can then run past you and mess with other people working on the nest. It is as if Pete is trying to show you that his wings are not broken at all, and in fact, are all pumped up and ready for a fight.
He made my usually-cushy job a nightmare.
I’m pretty sure he tried to bite me once. Babysitting Pete while work is done around his nest is not a simple matter of pretending to fall for his Broken Wing Display: it is a matter of aggressively trying to dodge him while not letting him get past you where he could easily get stepped on by folks working furiously around his nest.
I swear I’m not making this up: when an exclosure is first built, a circular “moat” is dug around the nest so the fencing can be buried several inches deep to prevent the Fox from digging under it. Pete actually faked us out, got by everyone, ran, and LEPT the moat to get back on his eggs, thus stopping the work.
Fortunately, I too am clever and full of tricks. I discovered that if I dropped my camera between myself and Pete’s lunacy, he’d focus on that and stay out of harm’s way. Enjoy some quick footage of the experience which also has all of the feels.
While we shouldn’t necessarily chuckle at seeing an animal in distress, don’t be shy to celebrate the unbelievable character and amazing Dad that is, our very own, Pete McLain!